The origin of ‘to break the ice’

The English expression ‘to break the ice’ has found its way into various other languages (romper el hielo, in Spanish for example). It is a useful, if over-used, concept, which refers to any strategy to overcome that initial awkwardness at social gatherings where few or none of the participants really know each other.

A conversational gambit is sometimes known as ‘an icebreaker’, as is the salesman’s opening patter.

Curiously, this expression was first used by Byron, in his Don Juan (1823):

And your cold people [the British] are beyond all price,
When once you’ve broken their confounded ice.

The ice in question is probably a reference to the ice covering a river or lake, which would have to have been broken at the start of spring for the year’s business to begin (as, for example, on the River Thames, which used to freeze annually).

This expression has thus been in use, meaning essentially unchanged,  for over 400 years. Good old Byron.